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Ninety-three-year-old Ripon, California, resident Makhan Singh Sandhu is living history and testament of Indian immigration to the United States before 1900.
Meeting a legend such as Sandhu makes one realize that Indians have been living in this country since the late 1800s, and not long into the 20th century they had established infrastructures.
By 1913, Indian immigrants had an organized political party, the Gadar Party which put out a weekly, the Gbadr. The same year, the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society, a Sikh religious organization, became incorporated and purchased land for a gurudurara or Sikh temple in Stockton.
The original building housing the Sikh Temple dates to 1916. Heralded as the first place of worship built by Indians in the US, the present brownstone and tile façade (this month’s cover photo) was built in 1929, serving as the temple building of the Gurudwara Sahib Stockton.
Situated in the south side of old Stockton, the Sikh Temple lies at the end of a residential neighborhood street at 1930 S. Grant Road, with the lot bordering an Industrial complex and railroad tracks. But the importance of the tons of mortar and brick does not cease there. The site exudes an aura of historical importance especially when one lays eye upon a dilapidated mustard yellow shingle-roof house – the original temple building of 1916.
One of five buildings on the lot, a library reveals the history of the Sikh people and their struggle through his¬tory in India and the US, documenting the establishment of Indian immigrants in this country, especially in California. Lined with photographs of celebrated freedom fighters and shelves of literature with titles such as The Book They Banned – Oppression in Punjab, The Story of Guru Gobind Singb, and World Sikh News (a contemporary journal), It is little wonder that the gurudwara has been designated as a historical monument by the state of California.
The famous gurudwara can proudly boast of ns affiliation with Sandhu, one of the few living members of the Gadar Party, who regularly frequents the gurudwara. In fact, Sandhu’s photograph dots the far end of a long wall which exhibits centuries of illustrious champions of freedom such as Guru Gobind Singh, Netaji Sub ash Chandra Bose, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
Born in Manhlala, Punjab, Sandhu came to San Francisco with his father. In 1899, when he was only one year old, his father’s immigration preceded by almost a decade the first wave of Immigration from India to the US in 1907-1908. Spurred by discriminatory British land rights legislation, Punjabis primarily made up the first major migrant groups that landed in Canada as well as in the US.
According to Mark Juergensmeyer, former associate professor of’ Religious Studies at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley, problems had been developing since the turn of the century; when the Alienation of, Land Act In India prohibited certain non-farming castes from owning agricultural lands.
The act provoked “middle-income nonagricultural Punjabis who had aspired to develop land,” writes Juergensmeyer in his 1981 article, “The Gadar Syndrome: Ethnic Anger and Nationalist Pride.” The people were already suffering from disasters such as famine and the bubonic plague. Thus, from 1907 to 1908, about 5,000 Indians emigrated to Canada while 3,000 others found their way to Oregon, Washington, and California.
Ninety-two years later, Sandhu says he never journeyed back to India. Nevertheless, he actively pursued the causes of the Gadar Party, a movement for a liberated India, and a voice for the newly-arrived immigrants In the US, a pharmaceutical chemist by professton, with a degree from the University of California at San Francisco, Sandhu forsake his pharmacy career to become the treasurer-controller of the Gadar Party and to handle the printing of Its weekly newspaper until India’s Independence In 1947.
Founded In 1909, the Gadar movement began under the name of the Hindustan Association in British Columbia Canada, advocating India’s autonomy from the British. Initially, more Indians emigrated to Canada because it offered more venues for fighting immigration exclusion laws.
Soon after, due to eventual restrictive legislation and racial disturbances in Canada, the focus of emigration shifted to the US. In 1910, the immigration of Indians into the US reached a peak. In 1912, a nationalist group in Oregon organized itself under Hindustan Association as well.
In 1913, these movements officially changed name to the popular appellation of Gadar, when leader liar Dayal established the Yugantar Ashram in San Francisco as the headquarters for all the branches. The word gadar (also spelled ghadar or ghadr) means mutiny or revolt.
Finally, in late 1911, the Gadar Party concerted to foment a rebellion against the British government by urging Indian army members to revolt. The Idea was to mobilize extant revolutionaries and militant nationalists as a united group and stage a revolt. For a multitude of reasons, this grand scheme, deployed in 1915, flopped.
UC Berkeley lecturer Jane Singh calls it an “attempted revolution.” Singh is the Outreach Coordinator for the Center for South Asia Studies at HC Berkeley and has been a researcher at the Center for the past 10 years. She attributes the failure to a lack of politicization and support from the nationalists that the Gadar Party took for granted.
Furthermore, the British intercepted the plot as a result of extensive surveillance and with help from an infiltrator planted in the Gadar Party. A German link which surfaced further heightened British efforts to stop the collusion.
Many Gadar Party leaders captured by the British were hanged, while the American government prosecuted and even deponed several of the members. The incident came to be called the “Gadar Incident.”
“Political strategists thought this was a good time to revolt against the British,” elucidates Singh, “since it was just before when World War I broke out.”
The Gadar movement had a strong militant pent. In fact, this is the thesis of Juergensmeyer’s 1981 article. He attributes the militancy of the movement to two factors: frustration against the homeland and hardship in the new American environment.
The Gadar Party had two agendas: a nationalistic struggle for India and an assertion of its identity in America. These Immigrants had suffered oppression in India, and would not tolerate tt in a country to which they had fled. They had left because of the economic, social, and political persecution they had lived under in India.
Also, the movement had widespread support from many who did not directly experience adversity in India, such as Sandhu, who was a toddler when he left India.
The composition of the Gadar Party explains why the movement manifested the way it did. Juergensmeyer reports that most of the Indians who came to the west coast of Canada and the US around the tum of the century were Punjabi Sikhs – illiterate farmers and laborers, students and priests. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of the Gadar Party was Sikh.
“Sikhs have always been involved in struggle and have fought for many centuries,” says Ujjal Singh, current president of the Stockton gurudwara. The in-habitants of Punjab, where Sikhs originated, have had to confront invaders since time Immemorial because of Its geographic location. He even adduced a verse by the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh: “When all other means to solve a struggle fail, then it’s right to pick up a weapon.”
Jane Singh, herself a second-generation Punjabi Sikh, explained that many of the early Immigrants were peasant proprietors and Independent agriculturalists in Punjab and had the means to relocate. People were already displaced because of a destabilized economy resulting from the British enactment of a cash economy system. Also, many served in the army and were stationed in places In Southeast Asia. Thus, these people were able to take advantage of opportunities to leave India.
These Immigrants quickly adjusted to the familiar terrain of such areas as the Sat Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, especially Stockton, which are geographically akin to Punjab. Nonetheless, their frustrations were further exacerbated In the US due to anti-Indian legislation and the fact that they were a minority. With such a big base, it was logical for a branch of the Gadar Party to spring up in Stockton.
Even today, there is a relatively dense population of Sikhs In this agricultural heart of Northern California. About seven to eight percent of the total population of Butte, Sutter, and Yuba counties is Sikh. The Stockton gurudwara is and always will represent the bastion of the country’s Sikh people.
Ohio resident Kuljlt Sandhu traveled all the way to attend a Sunday morning session of prayer, diwan, in October to “see how people of my religion have organized their way of life” at this nationally renowned place of worship.
Ujjal Singh attested to this sentiment when he proudly asserted that the gurudwara served as a place of worship for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs right up to India’s independence in 1947.
President for only the past year, Singh moved from India to the US In 1983 to escape the growing political tension In Punjab. He spent the first three months of his stay In the US living in the guest rooms of the temple situated in a medium-sized house on the lot. The library building has additional rooms for temporary visitors. Singh ex. plalned that it Is the policy of the gurudwara to offer refuge to anyone regardless of race, religion, or creed.
A 22 year veteran of the Indian airforce, Ujjal Singh outlined some of the specific objectives of the Stockton gurudwara. In addition to serving as a place of worship, the gurudwara is also:
1. A place for social gatherings and to make life easier for new Indian immigrants
2. An organization to educate the American public about Sikh culture.
He described ongoing outreach programs In conjunction with the local high schools, nearby Delta College, and the University of Pacific. “It’s Important that we have such Lograms,” he said. “Otherwise we’re taken for Iranians or are called ‘ragheads.’
While many people, especially the younger generation, confess that their motive for visiting the gurudwara is not solely religious, they cherish the ties. UC Berkeley senior Jeet Sidhu, a history major and a familiar visitor to the Stockton gurudwara, explained the viewpoint of many of her peers: “Organized religion is good because it bonds and strengthens society – it’s nice to share an Identity with people. And even if you don’t want to deal with the religious aspects, it is culturally enriching.”